Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Dan Hageman & Kevin Hageman
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Austina Adams
Telling scary stories had become a tradition at sleepovers and gatherings when I was a kid, and I’m sure others can relate. There’s something special about passing on these stories and trying to scare your friends more than they can frighten you. While never experiencing the novels this film draws inspiration from, the story brings forth the horror of what it must have been like to experience these stories as a kid.
In a small town in Pennsylvania, Stella (Zoe Colletti) tries to make it through school with her best friends Auggie (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur). After pranking the town bully, they run into someone they’ve never met before named Ramon (Michael Garza). All of them run into this house known for being haunted, where they find a book owned by the infamous Sarah Bellows. After taking the book, stories start to appear and monsters start manifesting into each of their biggest fears.
It’s quite the task trying to put together all of these stories into a cohesive narrative, as I’ve learned that they are a collection of short horror tales. The narrative they put together doesn’t entirely work, but the scare sequences capture the fear they intended and look absolutely incredible. Let’s start with the narrative first. Each horror sequence lines up directly with the book and it outlines exactly what will occur in the story. It even lays out the person’s name that will be impacted by the specific monster. Where the story loses some credibility comes from insisting that these creatures are the biggest fears of each of the individual characters. A logic that works for some but seems like a real stretch for others because it’s limited to the monsters coming directly from the short stories. The way it unfolds and then concludes did leave much to be desired and makes some of the events from the beginning feel a bit hollow.
However, each scare sequence was crafted beautifully and it was great to hear that the filmmakers utilized practical effects for every single one. Each sequence became its own controlled and contained vignette. The scariest of them all, of course, being the Pale Woman. The way they prefaced the scene, led up to it, and then executed the sequence was spectacular and gave me such an unnerving experience. With Guillermo Del Toro as a producer, it’s no surprise that practical effects played a large part in the storytelling and it shows in the final product. Each of the monsters felt real and scary because they were not pure CGI creations. It creates a tangibility to them that only adds to the experience.
With each vignette being special in its own way, the overall narrative doesn’t really know how to tie them together to create something cohesive. It left me just waiting for the next scare sequence because everything with Sarah Bellows and the other characters barely held my interest. It does try to touch upon the racism that existed in that time and town towards Ramon, but it doesn’t really get explored.
Interesting possibilities existed that could have tightened up the story, but the filmmakers only had an interest in putting these scary vignettes together and figure out the rest of the narrative later. The story suffered but I see it as a worthy sacrifice for something that I still land fairly positive on. It can’t be considered a great film, but it accomplished what it set out to do from the very beginning, which includes bringing these scary characters to life. Characters that have scared a whole generation of children, who are now adults, and it looked better than I could have ever imagined. The horror of the book came from the unnerving illustrations and when comparing it with how it came together on screen, it’s craft is undeniable.